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Cooney Ridge fires remain in question

Cooney Ridge fires remain in question

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Bitterroot crews attack Gold 1 blaze

The Cooney Ridge Complex of fires burning east of Florence remained a mystery Tuesday.

Hampered by a lack of resources and overwhelmed by the fires' sprawl, fire officials could only wonder how widely the fires have ranged.

"We don't even know how many fires are in there," said Jonathan Hansen, Missoula unit manager of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation office. "There could be three fires in there or there could be a 100. We just don't know."

A bit of the mystery may be shed by Wednesday. A Type II management team from northwest Montana has taken control of the fire, and leader Bob Sandman has ordered up crews and equipment to go after the string of fires started by lightning last Friday.

So far, Hansen said, the fires simply have been too dangerous to fight.

"We've had the Florence and other volunteer crews in there and they've done a fabulous job, but this is a dangerous fire," Hansen said. "We really haven't done much in the way of suppression yet."

The fire potentially endangers homes in the Granite Creek drainage up Eight Mile, but homeowners are thus far being allowed to stay in their homes.

Hansen wouldn't even hazard a guess on the size of the Cooney Ridge fires, which began as a series of separate blazes but are now being treated as a complex. The fires had burned more than 2,000 acres as of Sunday, but no one has a reliable figure for the current acreage.

"We just haven't had the resources available to get a handle on that," Hansen said.

Even the DNRC's press release Tuesday offered next to nothing on the fire.

"Type II team will receive an in-briefing at 12 p.m. today by DNRC," the release said. "Volunteer fire departments have been working this fire."

The team is expected to set up camp Wednesday along the Eight Mile Road.

Farther up the valley, southeast of Stevensville, firefighters made a little headway against the Gold 1 fire, which is roughly estimated at 2,200 acres.

Crews were taken off the fire Monday, as winds whipped the fire into a frenzy, but Nan Christianson of the Bitterroot National Forest said firefighters were back on the blaze Tuesday. Aerial retardant and water drops also resumed, as firefighters worked to put in line along the fire's northern edge.

"It really didn't grow as much as it did on Monday," Christianson said. "They had a lot better day. We had higher humidities and it wasn't quite as hot."

Even so, a Stage 1 alert remained in effect; the alert is a precautionary move to let nearby residents know that they might be evacuated should conditions worsen.

And forest officials moved to close most of the northern end of the Sapphire Mountains along the western slope.

"Everything on the Stevensville Ranger District will be closed by Wednesday," Christianson said.

Fire crews also had wrapped the Willow Mountain Lookout and pulled all sensitive equipment from the site. The fire was about three-quarters of a mile from Willow Mountain, Christianson said.

A Type II management team from Arizona is setting up camp in the Willow Creek area, and Christianson said beefed-up forces will be ready to attack the fire Wednesday.

"They'll be ready to rock and roll," she said.

They'd better be. DNRC's Hansen said fire crews face a daunting challenge as the fire season wears on.

"We're going to have to go in there and get these fires," he said. "We can't wait on the weather. It's just too dry. Some of the worst of fire season comes in September."

That said, Hansen managed a look at the bright side on Wednesday.

"One thing that most people don't know is that we had 150 fires started last Friday that DNRC initial attack crews responded to, and now we've got four," he said. "Those four are getting a lot of attention, but at least we're only talking about four. The rest of them are gone."

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 370-3330 or at mmoore@missoulian.com.

Meetings scheduled

Fire information meetings for both the Cooney Ridge Complex and the Gold 1 fire are set for Wednesday night. The Cooney Ridge meeting is set for 7 p.m. in the Florence-Carlton High School gym. The Gold 1 fire meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the Stevensville Elementary and Physical Education facility on Phillips Street.

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